Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is considered a political strategist by many. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran once feared his actions. He takes certain bold decisions in the situations where other leaders are reluctant to act. On the other hand, he acts in selfless manner in certain situations where even ordinary politicians do not behave in such a way, let alone political strategists. However, his strategies did not work in favour of him in critical stages.
When he became the Prime Minister in 2001 with the majority in the Parliament, the President was Chandrika Kumaratunga. At that time the Sri Lankan Army was defeated on several fronts by the LTTE. The Government lost major camps in the Northern Province including Elephant Pass. Katunayake Airport was attacked by the LTTE and SriLankan Airlines lost heavily. The country recorded a negative growth rate.
When Wickremesinghe became the Prime Minister he signed a peace agreement with the LTTE amid heavy criticisms of the racial segments. He acted on his sole wish and did not consult the then President. After signing the agreement, barricades in Colombo town were removed swiftly. These were bold decisions based on the situation the country faced at that time and in comparison to the decisions taken or indecisiveness displayed by our own leaders especially in relation to ethnic conflict.
When S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was in power he signed the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact in order to address the legitimate grievances of the Tamil community. With the heavy protests from his own political supporters, mainly by racist Bhikkus, who did not know head or tail of what Buddha preached, he tore the agreement in front of his house. If this was implemented we would not have seen the 30-year long war.
When J.R. Jayewardene was the all-powerful President with a 5/6th majority in Parliament and undated resignation letters of UNP Parliamentarians in his pocket, he did not dare to come forward and declare curfew in time at the time of communal violence in July 1983.
International safety net
Norway was engaged by the President Kumaratunga as the facilitator of the peace process. When political negotiations started, Wickremesinghe got the help of USA, Japan, Norway and EU as co-chairs of the negotiation process. In the past the LTTE was not sincere with the negotiations and used those opportunities to strengthen their military capabilities.
Therefore by engaging the international community in the peace process Wickremesinghe created a situation where the LTTE could not simply walk away from the negotiation table. This was somewhat similar to the action taken by J.R. Jayewardene to invite the Indian Army to engage in combat operations against LTTE.
During the time of previous UNP governments, Sri Lanka was criticised over the manner the State handled the LTTE issue. This situation was changed during the tenure of Lakshman Kadirgamar as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
At one session of the negotiations LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham agreed for a confederation type of political solution. Prabhakaran did not agree and this paved the way initially for removal of Balasingham as the chief negotiator with the appointment of Thamilselvam in his place and later withdrawal of the LTTE from the negotiation table.
The international community got first-hand information of the duplicity of LTTE as a result of the strategies employed by Wickremesinghe. This strategy was called as a creation of an international safety net. This term used in favour of Ranil Wickremesinghe at the presidential elections in 2005 where he and Mahinda Rajapaksa contested. Offended Prabhakaran ordered Tamils not to participate in the presidential elections after allegedly accepting funds from the Rajapaksa camp.
It was widely believed that had the Tamils voted, the majority of those votes would be cast in favour of Wickremesinghe, ensuring his victory. Ironically, a good portion of Sinhala voters did not understand the strategic move of Wickremesinghe and thought that he was a weak leader. Therefore, he was voted out. Hence his strategy worked against him at this critical movement. It should be noted that the long peace negotiations paved the way for the breakup of the LTTE with Karuna moving out.
During the peace process, at one point President Kumaratunga has taken over three portfolios, including the Ministry of Defence. At that time Wickremesinghe was on an overseas tour. When he came to the airport, there was a massive gathering of people and it took around eight hours for him to come to Colombo. People were ready to go to Temple Trees and demand the portfolios taken over be given back.
Wickremesinghe was reluctant about a street demonstration. He requested the masses to go home peacefully and told them that he had a strategy. His strategy was to announce that he would withdraw from the peace process since he did not have the control of the defence portfolio. This was a very valid argument.
Wickremesinghe expected the pressure from his ‘international safety net’ to compel President Kumaratunga to hand the ministries back to him. Kumaratunga did not hand over the ministries but she dissolved Parliament so that the strategy of Wickremesinghe did not work.
Long-term objectives over short-term benefits
During the time of Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister under President Kumaratunga, he took a bold decision not to have any recruitments to the public sector. In Sri Lankan elections, it is a common fact that the youth engage in election campaigning anticipating an employment opportunity. At that time the UNP was in the Opposition for a considerable time. Therefore, there was high pressure from the UNP supporters requesting jobs. Any politician knows the importance of helping his supporters.
On the other hand, the requirement was to improve the quality of the public sector by increasing their salaries and enhancing their accountability rather than increasing the number of unproductive employees. Even at that time, the public sector employment level was very high and it was more appropriate to reduce the employment level of the public sector thinking of the long-term objectives of the State.
Wickremesinghe opted for the second option i.e. not to sacrifice long-term objectives of the country for the short-term benefits for his political party. The situation is worse today due to the acts of the previous regime. This action of Wickremesinghe was very rare or unheard of among Sri Lanka politicians and it displayed the true statesmanship of Wickremesinghe and his selfless behaviour in favour of the country.
Relationships with minority communities
During the time the UNP was in the Opposition, Wickremesinghe adopted a non-racial stand which means a nationalistic stand towards the relationships with the minority communities while the Government that was in power adopted a racial stand.
Having seen the popularity the then Government was enjoying, a group of the UNPers applied pressure on Wickremesinghe to adopt similar policies in order to gain popularity. Wickremesinghe resisted and continued with his nationalistic policies which were wrongly interpreted as non-nationalistic policies by racists. He was once again displayed the selfless behaviour and statesmanship by opposing to sacrifice the broad interests of the country for the short-term popularity and power.
Quite in contrast, today the corrupt racists of the Rajapaksa clan have gone to the extent of distorting the National Flag by removing the two stripes of orange and green representing the minority communities, Tamils and Muslims. It should be noted that the Supreme Court in the determination of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution concluded that the symbol of national unity was the National Flag and not the President.
David Yoffie, a Harvard professor, and Michael Cusumano wrote a book called ‘Strategy Rules’ analysing leadership skills of Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and Steve Jobs who were respectively the long-time CEOs of Microsoft, Intel, and Apple.
Yoffie says (as commented by Michael Blanding): “These guys each had very different skills they brought to the table but they also became successful in part because they were able to figure out what they were not good at, and they were able to fill those gaps by recruiting individuals and forming teams to do the things they couldn’t do or wouldn’t do or shouldn’t do.”
Probably that understanding of himself enabled Wickremesinghe to accept Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena as common Opposition candidates in presidential elections of 2010 and 2015 respectively.
In the Book Yoffie said that all three of them were in many ways highly imperfect leaders and the authors did not want to idealise them or sugar-coat them. Leaders or followers all of them are comprising of good, bad or ugly qualities. However, political leadership is not to serve himself and his immediate family and supporters but rather it is to envision a bright future for all the citizens of the country and work tirelessly to achieve the same in democratic means. We have to watch in time to come whether Wickremesinghe will continue his style of leadership and achieve such goals.
(The writer is a Chartered Accountant by profession and holds a Master of Business Administration degree awarded by the Postgraduate Institute of Management of University of Sri Jayewardenepura.)